The Drum (ABC online)

By Tom Switzer

"We will be there seeing the mission through." So said Julia Gillard in response to this week's tragic news of the 24th Australian death in Afghanistan.

Yet why does the mission, for which 1,550 diggers are fighting, justify more Australian blood and treasure in a backward tribal nation of 25 million? There is, after all, no clear strategy or decent end in sight.

The Prime Minister says: "We're there to make sure that Afghanistan doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists." Yet even before the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this month, there was no substantial Al Qaeda presence in the country: according to CIA estimates a year ago, only 50 to 100 Al Qaeda fighters have been left there.

To the extent that the Al Qaeda network remains operational, it is far more likely to be based in Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Pakistan. As former foreign minister Alexander Downer has pointed out, the original objective of the 2001 operation was to destroy Al Qaeda, not fight the Taliban. That aim has been accomplished.

Moreover, the Afghan Taliban does not yearn for global martyrdom; it merely wants to restore Pashtun rule in Afghanistan. That may not be ideal for the people of that war-torn country, but it hardly represents a serious threat to US and Australian interests.

Gillard says she wants "democracy and a functioning government to take hold". But after nearly 10 years it should be clear to anyone that democracy is not an export commodity to such a tribalised and xenophobic land. Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest and most primitive societies.

Its infrastructure is poorly developed. Its terrain is more forbidding than even Iraq's. Poppy fields are in bloom. Elections have been deeply flawed. The local army can't stand up to the Taliban for long. Indeed, the corrupt Karzai government is negotiating with the Taliban - which makes sense given that the Taliban will still be there after western forces turn tail and run, as they will eventually will.

It is true, as Gillard argues, that Australia's commitment to the all-important US alliance means a special obligation to support what Robert Menzies called "our great and powerful friends". It also explains why Canberra has supported all of Washington's (and London's) major wars in the past century.

The point, though, is that many leading political and diplomatic figures in Washington (and London) can't wait to end what is the longest war in American, indeed Australian, history.

In the US, a growing number of congressmen on both sides of the political fence oppose the $10 billion monthly funding bill for the operation. Tea Partiers, animated by opposition to the exorbitant level of federal spending and $14 trillion indebtedness, almost sound like the second-coming of George McGovern.

Leading strategists and intellectuals – from Les Gelb (Democrat) to Richard Haass (Republican) – counsel significant drawing down of the US presence, lest the quagmire further damage American prestige and credibility. Nearly two thirds of Americans say the war is no longer worth fighting.

Meanwhile, the administration is considering direct talks with the Taliban even as it begins phasing out 5,000 US forces in July. The US and NATO have flagged their complete combat withdrawals by 2014. (Two thirds of the 140,000 coalition troops are American.)

In Britain, prime minister David Cameron has called for a withdrawal of British troops within the next two years. The Dutch have quit Afghanistan for good. The Canadians are in the process of pulling out all their troops.

And yet, even as the deteriorating position of the US-led coalition becomes increasingly evident, Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott keep insisting we must complete the mission. Last October, the Prime Minister even warned that Australian soldiers would be in Afghanistan for another decade.

But the logic that suggests that because Australia and the Coalition have stayed so long, we may as well finish the job, is based on a false premise that assumes a defined endgame exists and is achievable. But no endgame exists, let alone is achievable.

This is no way to conduct a war. We've been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, and like America and Britain today, we are out of patience, political rationale and public support. A political settlement with the Taliban is the best way to produce a speedy withdrawal of Australian and Coalition troops. It is time to scale down our ambitions and reduce our commitments.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of Spectator Australia.